Few companies are as brazenly deceptive as ExxonMobil, the largest oil company in the United States. We know about its years of funding anti-climate research despite acknowledging climate change internally as a risk, for which it is now under investigation. And we remember how it avoided responsibility for the Exxon-Valdez Oil Spill in 1989.
Meanwhile, in Texas, the company consistently violated the Clear Air Act and released toxic chemicals into the environment for more than 16,000 days, a federal court ruled last month. Only a citizen suit, led by Environment Texas and the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, was able to ultimately hold Exxon responsible for pollution from its refinery and chemical plant in Baytown, about 25 miles outside Houston.
“This ruling shows how crucial the citizen enforcement provision of the Clean Air Act really is for Texas residents. It means that private citizens victimized by the world’s biggest polluters can get justice in the American court system, even when government regulators look the other way,” Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, said in a press statement announcing the ruling.
Exxon will be fined $19.95 million, which is believed to be the largest civil penalty ever imposed in an environmental citizen suit such as this one. While it may seem like peanuts to a company worth, at least estimate, over $400 billion, it is meaningful and sets a precedent.
“[This] decision sends a resounding message that it will not pay to pollute Texas,” Dr. Neil Carman, the clean air program director for the Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter, said in a press statement. “Compliance with air pollution laws and operating permits is mandatory, not optional, and we will not stand idly by when polluters put our health and safety at risk.”
The case also shows the power of the Clean Air Act. Unfortunately, this is one of several pieces of legislation that may be weakened under the anti-environment, anti-health, anti-people administration now in power in Washington, D.C, which also happened to nominate Exxon’s former CEO as secretary of state.
The reason they cite for rolling back clean air rules? Over-regulation. If anything, the environment is not being protected enough, as polluting companies like Exxon often get a free pass to do as they please – and it is us, regular citizens, who suffer.
We must fight to keep the Clean Air Act in place, and even strengthen it to ensure that citizens across the country can use it to hold companies like Exxon responsible for their actions. And we also need to fully punish Exxon for its transgressions -- including its efforts to stymie U.S. climate policy by funding denial campaigns.
Photo Credit: W. Clarke via Wikimedia Commons
Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.